Checking In and Checking Out

Ananda in the Himalayas Is Spa Nirvana

by Elisa Ranganathan
Ananda All photos courtesy of Ananda in the Himalayas.

THE INDIAN HIMALAYAS — Yes, it has been voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveller India, US, and UK as their favorite destination spa on Earth many times, but I found myself at Ananda in the Himalayas because my elderly Hindu father dragged me along. It turned out to be a gracious and graceful place, and I am grateful that he did.

Perched in the Himalayas above Rishikesh, the North Indian city along the Ganges River, the hotel is set on 100 acres of forest. After a grand approach — past playful monkeys and winding hill roads — a set of imposing gates opened onto the former palace estate of Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal. We sipped refreshment while checking in, and marveled at it all. Ananda does not disappoint.

Theirs is not a standard check-in but rather a personalized completion of the booking process that unobtrusively enables your custom holistic wellness stay. You could treat Ananda as just a hotel and only book a room, but the real point and pleasure here is enjoying the all-inclusive wellness stay based on yoga, Ayurveda, and Vedantic philosophy.

Having checked in, we were golf-carted to our modern accommodations, and the unwind truly began. Ananda has 75 rooms, four suites, three villas with private pools, and a single suite in the palace. When I wasn’t in the spa, I took sanctuary in my room, its wall of windows looking down the mountains to the holy Ganges. Sipped Darjeeling teas on the balcony. Napped in the heavenly bedding. Snuck in an email check with powerful WiFi.

During the booking process, guests are asked their size of white kurta pyjama — and find pristine tailored sets hanging in their closets upon arrival. My father wore his for the duration of our stay.

Every time we crossed paths with a staff member or guest, a mutual greeting was expressed with an anjali mudra salutation. The gesture never felt fussy but rather sincerely intended. It also reflects and sets the remarkably tranquil tone of the place.

The Wellness

Yes, of course Ananda has an impressive spa, fitness center, and pool, as well as a robust yoga and fitness program. But “healthy" here harmoniously includes the mind and soul.

Yogis and trainers guide you — although only if you want, and in an entirely and truly personalized way.

Though I did not see a nutritionist or follow a specialized diet (as most guests do), I did consult an Ayurvedic doctor at length. I have a solid base knowledge in Ayurveda, and I was impressed at how expertly he advised me. After a diagnosis of my dosha (constitutional type), he informed me about lifestyle ramifications and suggested prescriptions. He referred to Sanskrit texts throughout while counseling me in detail and in depth. Because I was fascinated and wanted to learn more, he generously shared his notes and offered that I could email him with any follow-up questions.

For novices as well as the initiated, I also highly recommend the open-air meditation sessions in the amphitheater. (My close Mumbaikar friends agree.) The ambiance suspends the pressures of the daily grind in a way that took dubious me by surprise.

I ended up having two personally trained fitness sessions in the gym because no other guests showed up for the scheduled group sessions. They were not as arduous as the Parisian bootcamp cardio romp I'm used to, but they did the job.

Since I was stuck here, I also tried a private yoga nidra session, which is considered particularly helpful for anxious souls. I was grateful for the guru’s deft adaptation to my skepticism. The authenticity of the teaching and fellow guest attendance go a long way to setting one at ease. Two years later, I am still practicing yoga nidra using an app suggested by my teacher and have found it truly transformative.

Other activities on offer include tough Himalayan treks or easier nature strolls, as well as visits to nearby villages, Vedantic lectures and classical music in the amphitheater. If you’re feeling adventurous, can go whitewater rafting. If you’re feeling peaceful, spend the day at the pool.

Meditation in the amphitheater.
An Ayurveda therapy room.
Abhyanga massage.

The Spa

As wondrous as the whole place is, I think the CNT Readers’ vote is due to the treatments themselves. Especially the massages. Ayurveda is different than Thai or Swedish or any other massage therapies. Guests choose treatments according to preference and health.

I tried the Abhyanga massage. Then, I had another one. Because I have never experienced anything like it.

Necessary but not sufficient to an exceptional treatment are, of course, the equipment, set-up, and decor (God forbid a spa ever play muzak), expert and responsive techniques, and the quality and scent of oils and balms. But fundamentally, the masseuse’s faith in the treatment makes the distinguishing difference, creating a more transcendent treatment and journey.

Food and Drink

In addition to the main restaurant with its lovely outer deck, Ananda has a smaller adjacent drinks pavilion and a tea lounge in the palace. Poolside snacks are available. It’s relatively limited fare, which can get tiring if you stay more than a week, but it is organic and excellently prepared. I was happy to find non-vegetarian options and a good wine selection.

The spa chefs cook to guest requirements, and I swear the healthy food is superb, even for guests more accustomed to a diet of stinky, fat French cheeses and chocolate soufflés (raising hand). Ayurvedic cooking classes are available.

Standout Detail

Soaking in my bathtub overlooking the verdant hills and Ganges after a treatment.

The Downside

I’m struggling with this one, because this place really has no drawback. If I had to choose one, I would say that this is a place to visit if you are seeking wellness and are perhaps a bit curious about Hindu culture and philosophy. If not, you could be bored and isolated. In my case, I arrived fairly disinterested on a family trip and absolutely loved the place. Those who have an affinity for such an approach will come away with a meaningful experience.

What to Do Nearby

There’s not much to see in Dehradun, but many stop at the Beatles Ashram or Sivananda Ashram. The hotel organizes trips to the Rajaji National Wildlife Park.

My father and I attended Ganga Aarti prayers on the Ganges. All guests are welcome, and the hotel can organize transportation to the religious services, which not only takes care of logistics, but ensures tourists can participate unobtrusively.

Haridwar, site of the Kumbha Mela and one of the seven sacred Hindu cities, is a good hour’s drive away from the hotel, a place of pilgrimage, prayer, and purification in the Ganges.

The nearby Roseate Ganges is wonderful modernist luxury spa hotel, as is the Taj Rishikesh Resort and Spa on the banks of the Ganges. A close friend prefers nearby Vana, which is more intense and insider, and has a five-day minimum that’s usually too brief for its seriously devoted clientele. My strong preference is for Ananda because of its more traditional setting. But my Mumbaikari friends who have tried all four return to them regularly, according to their aesthetic and mood.

Good to Know

You’ll get the finest weather is in late March, April, or October. September may even be better if the monsoons have concluded.

Children under 14 are not welcome at Ananda in the Himalayas.

How to Get Here

Fly into Dehradun from major cities and drive fifty minutes to the hotel. Visitors need a visa to enter India.

The hotel can hire a driver with the type of car you prefer (4-wheel drive or air conditioning etc). It is less expensive to hire a car and driver online, but booking through the hotel will be easier for a few reasons, not least of which is that many local drivers don't speak English. It is not easy to self-drive around here, and if you break down you are potentially (and probably) screwed. It’s a bumpy journey, with no place to get water or food. No one speaks English, and many will fleece a dumb tourist. If you can't find help, in the wrong weather, you may freeze to death. Network coverage is very poor around here, and foreigners are like extra-terrestrials.

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